The story of true jihad (Part 2)
SEPT 6 — Last year, after getting some Kinokuniya book coupons for a speaking engagement I decided to cash it in on a few books including John W. Kiser’s “Commander of the Faithful: the Story of True Jihad”. This was a biography of Amir Abdul Qadir al-Jazairi — known as Emir Abd el-Kader to the West.
I was spooked as I had never heard of Abdul Qadir. What was perplexing still was that it was authored by a non-Muslim Westerner. Having finished reading the extraordinary book I thought to myself, surely I would have heard about Abdul Qadir’s story before from Muslims? But I could not recall it.
Well, the story should be compulsory reading for all Muslims.
The great American Sunni scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf congratulates the author for his effort: “I hope this finds you in good health. I was very happy as I am currently reading your book on Emir A.Q. [sic], who I have been reading for over twenty years. One of his books has been by my bedside for some time [italics mine]. Your work is most excellent and timely. I hope it gets a widespread distribution and reading.”
It now makes sense why Hamza has been a true voice of reason and moderation. A convert to Islam, Hamza was trained in the classical Islamic sciences in the Middle East and Africa.
He was the first American to teach in the Qarawiyin in Fes, Morocco’s oldest and most prestigious university. He established the Zaytuna Institute in the US in order to revive the study of the traditional Islamic sciences in the West.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Hamza courted controversy for condemning terrorism and for advising US President George W. Bush. Hamza actually did that on the advice of his teacher Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and Hamza later said: “I advised George Bush but he didn’t take my advice.”
Hamza became a prominent critic of the war on terror, but his early overtures to Bush have been attacked by many Muslims. If one is to look at how the Prophet responded to his enemies; or how Salahuddin al-Ayubi, who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders, could deal with his military enemy Richard the Lionheart of England with great respect and chivalry — then Hamza’s actions come as no surprise.
Having read about Amir Abdul Qadir al-Jazairi, one further understands why he is a great influence on Hamza.
Kiser begins his book by looking at Elkader, a town in Iowa, the US and traces the roots of its uncommon name. The town was named after Abdul Qadir whom the town’s founders described as “a daring Arab chieftain.”
Abdul Qadir was only 24 when he was appointed Amir of the tribes in Algeria. Even though young, he was well-educated — he memorised the Quran and trained in horsemanship and theology.
He completed his hajj to Mecca at 17 and met a young Imam Shamil from Daghestan (which includes modern-day Chechnya in Russia). The experience of the pilgrimage and visiting sacred sites in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad had a profound impact on his piety and religiousness.
As Amir of Algeria, he led the resistance against the French invasion. What earned him global respect and admiration was his chivalry. Abdul Qadir released the French prisoners when he had insufficient food to feed them.
He rewarded Arabs who captured French prisoners alive and treated them well. He invited the Bishop of Algeria, Dupuch, to send priests to his prison camps for the spiritual fulfilment of his prisoners.
What was more remarkable was that the French, who justified their imperial aggression as la mission civilsatrice (the civilising mission), were ruthless invaders.
But being a pious and principled Muslim, Abdul Qadir did not stoop down to the level of his enemies, but continued to occupy the moral high ground as enjoined by Islam. He drew admiration from his enemies, to the point that a few of those sent to fight him converted to Islam and joined his troops.
After a 17-year battle when the French scorched-earth tactics and superior military technology defeated Abdul Qadir’s gallant chivalrous resistance, the Amir of Algeria surrendered in 1847.
He was detained in France. For five years, the Amir stayed in the country of his enemy but was visited by countless French dignitaries who were curious to meet him. The Muslims were supposedly ruthless barbarians, yet how could this man inspire so much admiration from the French soldiers who fought him?
The citizens of Bordeaux even put Abdul Qadir’s name on the ballot as a French presidential candidate in 1849!
In 1852, Abdul Qadir was released by Napoleon III on the condition that he could not disturb Algeria again. The Amir obliged as all he wanted was to die in a Muslim land. He first went to Bursa, Turkey but ended up in Damascus — both then dominions of the Ottoman Sultan.
But the Ottoman Empire then was crumbling, earning its name as the Sick Man of Europe. Technologically, Muslims were being left behind by a resurgent Europe. But most importantly spiritually too, many Muslims had forgotten the moral high ground that Islam taught them to occupy as they became consumed in the siege mentality of a crumbling civilisation.
The Europeans took advantage of this as the Great Powers eyed different parts of the Ottoman Empire by fomenting religious tensions. In the past, the Christians and Jews of the Ottoman Empire lived largely in peace. Using the guise of protecting the Christian minorities, the Great Powers sought to have greater say in the Ottoman Empire.
It was against this backdrop of religious tensions that a conflict between the Druze and Maronites of Mount Lebanon spread to Damascus. Abdul Qadir and his entourage made a point to save many Christians, bringing them to his palatial mansion. When this news reached the mob, they gathered at his door to protest.
As Kiser wrote:
“Give us the Christians,” the crowd shouted after he (Abdul Qadir) had quieted it with his presence.
“My brothers, your behaviour violates the law of God. What makes you think you have a right to go around killing innocent people? Have you sunk so low that you are slaughtering women and children? Didn’t God say in our holy book, Whoever kills a man who has never committed murder or created disorder in the land will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity?”
“Give us the Christians! We want the Christians!”
“Didn’t God say there should be no constraint in religion,” the emir (sic) vainly replied.
“Oh holy warrior,” cried out one of the leaders of the mob. “We don’t want your advice. Why do you stick your nose in our business?”
“You have killed Christians yourself,” shouted another. “How can you oppose us for avenging their insults. You are like the infidels yourself — hand over those you are protecting in your home, or you will be punished the same as those you are hiding.”
“You are fools! The Christians I killed were invaders and occupiers who were ravaging our country. If acting against God’s law doesn’t frighten you, then think about the punishment you will receive from men… It will be terrible, I promise. If you will not listen to me, then God didn’t provide you with reason — you are like animals who are aroused only by the sight of grass and water…
“As long as one of my soldiers is still standing, you will not touch them. They are my guests. Murderers of women and children, you sons of sin, try to take one of these Christians and you will learn how well my soldiers fight.” The emir (sic) turned to Kara Mohamed. “Get my weapons, my horse. We will fight for a just cause, just as the one we fought for before.”
“God is great,” his men shouted, brandishing their guns and swords. Faced with the emir’s (sic) battle-hardened veterans, the crowd melted away bravely hurling insults.
This is such a beautiful story. Anyone with a basic grasp of Islam will know that the Amir stuck to the principles taught by Islam. But it is so difficult to find a modern living example of someone sticking to Islam in such a principled manner, bound by reason and compassion without yielding to raw emotion as we have seen in many Muslims these days.
Abdul Qadir was not the only Muslim to do so. Christians in mixed neighbourhoods praised the Muslims for restraining violence and protecting their Christian neighbours. These included scholars such as Sheikh Salim Attar, Salih Agha al-Mahayini, Said Agha al-Nuri, Umar Agha al-Abid and others.
But Abdul Qadir’s heroics attracted global attention. He was praised by the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul but also received the French Legion of Honour, gifts from Pope Leo IX and Queen Victoria. Abraham Lincoln sent him colt pistols inscribed with a congratulatory message all the way from the United States.
Most importantly, Imam Shamil of Daghestan, whom Abdul Qadir met in Mecca as a young man and became a hero in his own right for resisting Russian imperialism, wrote a letter to the Amir after reading about his exploits.
Shamil, another Sufi warrior who was hurt by the unIslamic actions of many Muslims in Damascus, was relieved to hear that his old friend stood up to the extremists and upheld the true Sharia.
Islam is not against war in toto: war is allowed under certain circumstances. But the war must be a just war, under strict principles that preceded the Geneva Convention by over 1,000 years. While retributive justice is permitted under the Sharia, forfeiting that right is deemed superior.
Why? This is because while a just war and a defensive war is jihad, the Prophet reminded us that the greater jihad is jihad un nafs or jihad against the self.
The spiritual battle is a must before one talks about the physical, lesser jihad. But the spirit is a forgotten aspect among many Muslims today.
This brings me back to the fact that the story of Abdul Qadir was brought to me by a non-Muslim Western author.
The Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. left us with a beautiful hadith:
“The word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it he has a better right to it.”
This hadith was held by the earlier Muslims closely that they engaged and interacted with the Roman, Greek, Persian and Indian civilisations, resulting in Islam’s old Golden Age.
It was after all the work of the Muslims that preserved many philosophical and scientific works from the ancient Greeks and Romans while Europe was undergoing its Dark Ages.
Is it not ironic that it took a non-Muslim Westerner to chronicle this wonderful story of a Muslim? Shouldn’t we now reclaim the story as our lost property?
If only our Friday sermons and TV preachers talk about Islam as a blessing to mankind instead of racist-tinged angry diatribes that do not reflect the beauty of Islam.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.